Whatever thoughts you have about Kalaupapa, a visit to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center will change your mind. Especially if you've never had a thought about Kalaupapa in the first place and, in fact, don't know where or what it is.
"A Reflection of Kalaupapa Past Present and Future," showing in Schaefer International Gallery through Sept. 30, pays a photographic visit to the remote Molokai settlement where Belgian priest Father Damien de Veuster would, more than a century later, be canonized for treating patients believed to have leprosy.
Wayne Levin's photos, along with a number of historic images, poignantly show Damien wasn't the only hero on this remote peninsula, a place of exquisite beauty, solitude and aching loneliness. The effects of the disease were compounded by ignorance and deep prejudice. Its ravages were felt not only by the patients - many of them children who were misdiagnosed, only to contract the disease after being sent to the colony - but also by their families, and the very culture of Hawaii that placed such value on ohana.
Even today, this chapter of history produces feelings of pain, outrage, guilt and sorrow.
But the exhibit, created by the nonprofit Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa and presented by the MACC, yields different emotions. Valerie Monson, who has long championed the cause of Kalaupapa, dispelled the notions of its residents, past and present, as victims.
This isn't to say they're glorified, embellished or enhanced in the photos. They're just people, undoing decades of stigmas with their willingness to pose so unpretentiously for Levin's old-fashioned camera.
Levin's resonant photos, and those from the past when thousands of people died there, instead portray members of a community, like other communities, with its spectrum of personalities, skills, quirks and sources of satisfaction. Rarely have the subjects on the Schaefer Gallery walls seemed so present, inviting dialogue with the viewer.
Antibiotics offered a cure for what was also known as Hansen's disease in the 1940s, but Kalaupapa remained home for many of the former patients and their descendants. Ironically, while the fear of leprosy and plans to isolate it had tragically torn apart so many families in the 1800s, the exhibit is having the opposite effect, according to Monson. It's forging new connections, with Hawaii residents discovering new links in their pasts, and descendants elsewhere filling in more blanks.
Monson, who has tirelessly devoted so much of herself to Kalaupapa's people, described being among the photos on the walls as feeling like she was among friends.
All who set foot in the gallery, especially those who have never journeyed to Kalaupapa before, even in their thoughts, will know the feeling she describes before they leave.
Following the exhibit opening Saturday night, I headed for Paia where the Rinzai Zen Mission was hosting its annual bon dance. Last vestiges of purple sunset were disappearing over nearby Baldwin Beach as a parade of headlights turned the playing fields into a packed parking lot.
Each of Maui's bon dances has its own personality - this one has become a personal favorite with its live music, leaping drummers, dancing lions and an almost theatrical sense of excitement accompanying its stately dancers in their kimonos, happily communing with departed ancestors through their mesmerizing, syncopated movements.
Under strings of glowing Japanese lanterns, with aromas of cooking filling the balmy night air, the dancers circled the musicians' tower under the colorful, gaily lit temple. With its Okinawan traditions, music and costumes differing slightly from the other weekly obon celebrations filling Maui' summer's calendar, if there were a Cirque du Soleil of bon dances, this would be it.
It's also an act of turning back the clock to slower, simpler, sultry summer Saturday nights in Maui's plantation past, when entertainment was live and something everyone was part of. I noticed an absence of cell phones in the happy blur of the crowd. Among the teens, there was an absence of attitude. Their participation was unencumbered by self-consciousness. The smiles were innocent, and everywhere.
For all the dancing tutus who remembered the plantation days, the Rinzai bon dance was also full of much younger children, dancing with their parents, many wearing the kimonos, learning the steps.
Rather than turning the clock back, I finally realized, we had brought the past forward, filling the soft-scented air with families loving being in each other's presence, remembering ancestors gone and still among the living, imparting joyous respect - a commodity in precious short supply these days - in generations to come.
Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com